Thoughtfulness and the Rule of Law

21 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2011 Last revised: 27 Feb 2011

See all articles by Jeremy Waldron

Jeremy Waldron

New York University School of Law

Date Written: February 10, 2011


The rule of law is sometimes associated with the precision and determinacy of legal rules, and the predictability of the environment that they provide. But it is important also to think about the various ways in which law helps to make us more thoughtful and reflective, governing us through standards and principles rather than through the robotic precision of rules. Whether in private law (with standards of reasonable care), or in human rights law (with norms prohibiting inhuman and degrading treatment), law sometimes invites its subjects to make thoughtful judgments about their behavior or about the situations that they face, structuring and channeling those judgments in various ways. The paper focuses on three ways in which law itself sponsors thoughtfulness and argumentation: (1) first, in its use of standards (as well as rule); (2) secondly in the way legal procedures structure and facilitate argumentation; (3) in the way precedents provide shared premises for argument. It would be a pity if we were to lose sight of these functions of law; and equally it would be a pity to distinguish too sharply between these key features of law and the aide of the rule of law. This paper reflects in general terms on the circumstances in which law's facilitation of thoughtfulness is appropriate, and on the dangers of losing sight of this aspect of the rule of law.

Keywords: certainty, positivism, precedent, predictability, procedure, rule of law, rules, self-application, standards, stare decisis

Suggested Citation

Waldron, Jeremy, Thoughtfulness and the Rule of Law (February 10, 2011). NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 11-13. Available at SSRN: or

Jeremy Waldron (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

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